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A monochrome image of Tadanori Yokoo.

Yokoo Tadanori’s homage to Pierre Bonnard’s iconic work in the French magazine La Revue Blanche, created for the experimental theatre troupe Tenjo Sajiki, reveals the power of artistic collaboration and the importance of taking creative risks.

In 1967, an advertisement appeared in a Japanese magazine with the headline: ‘Recruiting Extraordinary Performers, Freaks, Dwarves, Giants, Beauties, and More!’ Who would have thought what sounded like a freak show’s talent scout would mark the birth of an avant-garde art collective? In the same year, the multifaceted Terayama Shuji—poet, writer, film director, and commentator of equestrian and boxing competitions all in one—expanded his creative endeavours to theatre and formed the experimental troupe ‘Tenjo Sajiki’.

Screen print on paper depicting an elephant standing on its hind legs. A pipe-smoking figure in our bottom right area lifts the elephant's front leg. Two figures stand on the elephant's back in the upper half, one carrying half a citrus fruit and the other behind holding a sign.

Yokoo Tadanori. Recruiting Members for Tenjo Sajiki, 1967. Screen print on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Courtesy of Tadanori Yokoo

Through photographer Hosoe Eikoh, graphic designer Yokoo Tadanori was introduced to Terayama, and for a while, the two were thick as thieves and met nearly every day. It was natural, then, that Yokoo became one of the sixteen founding members of Tenjo Sajiki. He was in charge of the stage and poster design of the troupe’s first three plays: The Hunchback of Aomori, The Crime of Fatso Oyama, and La Marie-Vison. Among them, the poster of La Marie-Vison (Mary in Furs) deserves particular scrutiny with its intertextual design.

Poster of woman wearing a hat and holding a copy of La Revue Blanche magazine. A boy next to her makes a mocking thumb gesture.

Pierre Bonnard. Advertisement for La Revue Blanche, 1895—1900. S. Emmering Bequest, Amsterdam. Public domain

Before looking at the poster of La Marie-Vison, it is probably necessary to be acquainted with the French literary and art magazine La Revue Blanche as Yokoo directly imitated the magazine’s 1894 poster drawn by French post-impressionist artist Pierre Bonnard. Bonnard’s monochromic poster features three silhouettes, including a lady in fur holding a copy of La Revue Blanche, believed to be Misia Sert, then wife of Thadée Natanson, a founder of the magazine. She was also the muse of artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Beside the lady is a young boy dressed as a newsboy pointing at the magazine with a thumbs-up gesture; behind him, a man is at a newsstand, his hunched back facing the viewer. The description above also applies to Yokoo’s La Marie-Vison poster, except the newsstand is gone, and the lady has exchanged her copy of La Revue Blanche for a playful apology letter, which reads: ‘To Your Excellency Pierre Bonnard, kindly forgive my infringement of your work. Tanadori Yokoo.’ At the poster’s bottom right, Yokoo pays another homage to Bonnard by blatantly signing ‘Pierre Yokoo’ instead of his romanised name, ‘Tadanori Yokoo’, in the manner of his previous posters.

Screen print on paper depicting black silhouettes of two figures with yellow faces and hands against a pink background filled with Japanese text. On our left, the figure's puffy hat reaches the top. The figure at right kicks one leg back and wears a yellow and pink checked scarf.

Yokoo Tadanori. Mary in Furs, 1968. Screen print on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Courtesy of Tadanori Yokoo

What was the reason behind Yokoo’s appropriation of Bonnard’s work?

First of all, the composition of the trio in the poster is closely analogous to the plot of La Marie-Vison. Adapted from Arthur Lee Kopit’s 1960 play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, La Marie-Vison tells the story of a mother imprisoning her son and manipulating his life. Though absent, the father makes his presence known from time to time. While the father watches the plot unfolds as a corpse in Kopit’s version, the father (or, more accurately, adoptive father) in Terayama’s play assumes a maternal role by cross-dressing. In other words, the protagonist of La Marie-Vison is androgynous, ostensibly feminine, yet practically masculine. In Bonnard’s poster, the lady and the newsboy occupy the most prominent position in the centre and fully face the viewer. The man, however, is on the right with his back to the audience, melted into a black mass—is this not an exact rendition of La Marie-Vison? Marie disguises herself as a woman and shoulders the responsibility of a mother (one may interpret the newsboy as an adoptive son). At the same time, male identity lurks in the dark like a lingering shadow.

Furthermore, the woman in the poster is cloaked in fur, which mirrors the name ‘La Marie-Vison’, but the way she dons the coat implicitly divulges the character’s ambiguous identity.

Detail of screen print on paper depicting a black silhouette of a figure with a yellow faces against a pink background filled with Japanese text. The figure wears a puffy hat.

Yokoo Tadanori. Mary in Furs (detail), 1968. Screen print on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Courtesy of Tadanori Yokoo

While the woman’s eyes and nose are exposed, the mouth and neck are concealed by fur, so any innate masculine features, such as a beard or Adam’s apple, would be hidden from view, paralleling Marie’s androgynous, gender-fluid identity. Summarising the two points above, Yokoo’s referencing of Bonnard’s La Revue Blanche poster for La Marie-Vison makes for a perfect match.

In a turn of events, Yokoo had a huge argument with the director Higashi Yutaka at a rehearsal of La Marie-Vison and withdrew from the troupe in the heat of the fight. It remains unknown who was in the right in their altercation, but one thing is for certain: this poster is the last work Yokoo ever designed for Tenjo Sajiki, and it signalled the end of a dream partnership between Yokoo and Terayama.

The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 15 March 2023 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Or Ka Uen, and translated by Sophia Lam.

Image at top: Tadanori Yokoo during an interview with Asahi Shimbun on July 16, 1971 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Or Ka Uen
Or Ka Uen
Or Ka Uen

Or Ka Uen is Associate Editor at M+.

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